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Photo from Mythical Creatures by Liad Hussein Kant
“Mythical Creatures” by Liad Hussein KantPhotography Aviv Victor

This exhibition asks: what would it be like if we decriminalised sex work?

As Decriminalised Futures prepares to open at the ICA, three of the artists involved discuss their work and what a decriminalised future would look like for them

“It feels like sex work is becoming a bigger conversation in the public,” says the artist Khaleb Brooks. “But sometimes it can feel bigger than it is, in our queer or sex-positive echo chambers.” Backing up Khaleb’s words is the fact that over the last few decades, the sex workers’ rights movement has had few big wins. Shifts to fully decriminalise sex work – allowing sex workers to legally work together and get better access to justice and healthcare – have been scarce and hard-won. New Zealand is still the only country that has taken up the model of full decriminalisation, while a handful of other countries have partially decriminalised sex work or moved to regulate it. This might be because, as Khaleb suggests, so much stigma persists.

Fighting to counter this stigma, and imagine what a decriminalised future looks like, a new show at the ICA brings together 13 artists who make work on the topic, alongside an events programme that challenges traditional narratives around sex work, particularly who does it. Featuring artists with interdisciplinary approaches, the exhibition explores the intersections of sex work with racial justice and disability rights, as well as the joy, tenderness and sacred spaces sex work can create. Below, we talked to three artists from the show about their work, and the decriminalised futures they want to see.


“I am a dominatrix, or, I believe you completely.” In Aisha Mirza’s installation, these two phrases are placed above a mirror, for the participant to read while looking at their own reflection. “They’re mantras of sorts, that I have whispered to myself, that I have read when I least expected them but needed them most,” says Mirza. “The act of healthy sexual domination and of true self-belief are both rooted in consent and to be able to claim either or both is powerful.” 

A queer, non-binary, South Asian/North African writer, artist, DJ and mental health counsellor, Mirza is also a part-time stripper at Harpies, London’s first transgender strip club, and a dominatrix. Mirza’s installation “the best dick i ever had was a thumb & good intentions” playfully explores themes of domination and kink with a semi-domestic environment – referencing its traditional material expressions (latex, paddles, whips) while also emphasising its connection to care, intimacy and freedom. “Sex work can be a tremendous gift to everyone involved, which – for the most part – is how I have experienced it. I’m proud of that, so I wanted to bring some of those softer elements of care, curiosity and deep intimacy into the gallery space by way of this interactive installation, which is hopefully as much about the person experiencing it as it is about me.”

When asked what effect they hope Decriminalised Futures has on visitors, Mirza says: “If bringing an ancient facet of life as reviled as sex work to a space of “high art” (and in my opinion, sex work is the highest form of art) can help initiate conversations about the rights of all people to be supported in all work, then good.” If it can “quieten the hypocrisy and bigotry which normally surrounds conversations around sex work” then even better.


Originally from Chicago, and on DIY and punk scenes as a teenager, Khaleb Brooks grew up around a lot of people who were queer sex workers, and found himself reimmersed in this community when he moved to Berlin to pursue his art practice in 2017. “Most of my work is around African diasporic queer experiences. I started making figurative portraits of my friends, creating images of what I hadn’t seen in museums and galleries. I wanted my community to see themselves.” Drawing from mythology, his practice approaches imagined histories as a way to repair generational trauma and collective grief.

Khaleb’s work for Decriminalised Futures encompasses three paintings, “Before the Session”, “During The Session” and “After”. “I visualised my experiences to center my own body instead of the body of the client; “In “Before”, my back is turned away and I’m looking at the audience and there’s a salaciousness there. I enjoy sex, and the power in claiming ‘this is how much money I want to make or ‘this is the hours I’ll work’. In “During”, I’m standing tall and proud but my expression is solemn and vulnerable and that’s the part of me that is hidden during a session”. “After” is his favourite piece: “I’m laid out and satisfied, I’ve reclaimed ownership, like I’ve done this thing that was seemingly for you, but really it’s for me.” 

As a Black trans masculine person who is also sometimes femme, Khaleb says he experiences parallels between the commodification of his identity within the art world and through sex work. “I think because of the stigma sex work has, it’s important to show the multiplicity of the people who do sex work. That might sound basic but people still have this idea that if you’re a sex worker, it’s like a personality trait and that’s all you do, or that you you exist in this space of survival.” What’s important about Decriminalised Futures, he says, is it captures where the artists came from, their race, class, and other intersections: “It’s about who people really are.”


Oakland filmmaker Chi Chi Castillo and model and video artist May May Peltier collaborate under the name Stone Dove. Their experimental documentary piece Stone Dove is a series of interviews with San Francisco Bay Area-based sex workers, highlighting conversations on labour rights and mutual aid, while decentering common depictions of sex workers as either glamorous or tragic. The name Stone Dove captures contraditions and dualities; heavy/soft, immobility/movement, stoic/emotional. They use analogue and digital video to explore themes such as memory, imagination, legacy, visibility, and legitimacy, and draw from magical realism to manifest liberation, self-determination, and mischief. Take their DIY film Chi Chi’s House Party, where sex workers are either robbing evil clients and redistributing the cash to their friends, doing drugs with aliens, or entering otherworldly erotic spaces through holes in the wall. 

“We write, direct, edit, and produce narrative and documentary work that tends to focus on the mundane, silly, playful, intimate, relational, and ethereal experiences of sex workers,” say Stone Dove, who aim to bring the nuance that is often missing from depictions of sex work. For Stone Dove, the ICA show is a chance to support sex workers controlling their own images. There is no one answer for how to make life better for sex workers because it’s not a singular experience. “But, at the very least, we’d like to see more sex workers getting paid to be leading discussions on legislation and in the writers’ room/director’s seat for television and film.”

Decriminalised Futures opens at the ICA on February 12. Khaleb Brooks will have his first solo show at Gazelli Art House in London from June 30 until August 13, 2022